Monday night miscellany
A few spare thoughts from a day off work:
- One of the best things on the Internet right now is the New York Times’ Disunion blog – a day-by-day recounting of the Civil War, 150 years to the day after the events happened. It started late last year, right before the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election. And now, FINALLY, cannons are about to be fired on Fort Sumter. Not that the other stuff was bad – it’s been a fascinating multifaceted look at the political, military, social and economic situation leading up to the most devastating conflict in American history. But it’s like watching “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – you know how the movie’s going to end, and as good as everything else is, you’re really waiting for Robert Ford to shoot Jesse James. Well, the guns are about to fire. Now I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait two years for Gettysburg.
- Interesting fact of the day: the “proof” of an alcoholic beverage is now defined (in the U.S.) as being twice the alcohol by volume. What I didn’t learn until a few minutes on Wikipedia today was the considerably more interesting origin of that term. Like many of the better things in the world, it derives from the Age of Sail British navy. As is commonly quipped, the British navy’s traditions were “rum, sodomy and the lash,” and of those three the one sailors were unambiguously fondest of was rum. But rum was expensive and it got sailors drunk, and drunk sailors couldn’t work and started fights and generally caused trouble. So captains would water down the rum – and some, trying to save on supplies or control the crew, would water it down further.
Sailors didn’t like this. In the hard, lash-and-sodomy-strewn life at sea, rum was one of their few pleasures – indeed, it was part of their regular compensation. Eventually, a test was discovered to see whether the rum had been excessively watered down: drop some gunpowder (a fourth item in plentiful supply on British men-of-war) into the rum, take it out, and try to light it on fire. If the gunpowder won’t burn, the rum is more than around 43 percent water. If it burns, the rum had been “proved” or was “100 degrees proof.” If it didn’t, it was “under proof.” So 80-proof spirits (like the mostly full bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label in my pantry), while quite strong enough for me, might have started a mutiny on board a 40-gun frigate.
- Today, April 11, is officially the Most Boring Day in History* – or was, until it became notable for being the most boring. *And by history, they apparently mean the 20th century.